TODAY, I FINISHED READING a breakthrough literary book that everyone has been talking about. It’s a very good book but it contained far more about family-making and birth than I usually expose myself to. Because of who wrote the book, I’d reasoned that baby-making queers would make me less uncomfortable than the heteros. While the lit theory lens did help—I still finished the book with that weird feeling of alienation that comes from choosing not to have kids and wondering why my body has never been driven berserk by the urge to procreate. Why, as I always say, my biological clock only sings Barry White songs.
In some ways, because I’ll never experience birth, I have more in common with fathers than mothers—like the man in the book, even though the man was once a woman. But I wouldn’t even want someone else to pop one out for me, so I’m not like a father either. Really I’m more of an uncle. Uncle Jilly.
I worry that there’s a perception that because I’m childless I’m family-less—unnatural, selfish (a relative once accused me of the latter). And yet, I’ve built a life with A., who I decided I wanted to marry because it’s a kind of legalized family-making. While we’ll fail to make a child (again, lack of trying...well, not that kind of trying), we’re still a family of two—though I’m aware that our union may make us seem like forever-parents-in-waiting, even as my reproductive system has become "geriatric" (“use it or lose it” my gyno once said). We’re not immune ourselves to wondering what it’d be like to have children. At times we've imagined what they’d look like: big heads, chubby little legs. We've also imagined ills for them because of lousy genes—mental illness, bent bones.
And then there are the times when I tell A. stories of myself as a little girl—especially the one about the neck brace and the pigtails—and he gets bow-wow eyes and clamps his hand over his thumper. I think he must be imagining our own child, a mini-me in pigtails, chatting away, undeterred by a neck injury from a Slip ‘N Slide.
On occasion, I've also noticed traits of A.’s that, were we to have children, would likely prompt them to make fun of him. How it takes him weeks to shut up about daylight savings. How he turns lights off after you’ve left the room (a universal dad trait). How when it’s pointed out to him that he’s misbuttoned his shirt or has his pant leg stuck in his shoe he makes that fake cool face and says, “That’s how the kids are doing it these days.” The children we don’t have would roll their eyes. Pater is so out of touch.
Though it is just the two of us, A. and I don’t really live alone. This is because we have the imaginations of writers. Our heads are populated by so many people we wish to get on the page. Even inanimate objects in our household are animated—the dogs: Cedric (a paper weight), Colin (a key chain); the rabbits: Sophie (a white ceramic rabbit), Henri & Matilda (wall-mounted rabbit twins); the lion book ends: Presario, Seymour, and George; Sharkie, the oven mitt; Mr. Therapy Sock. There are also the plants: Myrtle (a myrtle topiary—named in the same prosaic way that one calls a tabby cat Tabby) and Rhoda (a begonia, which I at first accidentally thought of as a Rhododendron).
Children might find our interactions with these things with names amusing and see it as a performance for them. Yet, we are endlessly amused by it (there are also times when, frankly, I need Mr. Therapy Sock). We are the big children performing for ourselves. Sometimes A. leaves his backpack on a chair propped up at the table. If we later sit down to eat and the backpack is still there, he’ll address it as Udu and ask him how his day was at school. It’s funny and sweet. It may be sad too, but I’m never quite sure.
That’s a secret about the child-free—or at least me—that there are times when we long for the thing we don’t actually want (there should be a German word for that). I’ve been blue many times about not having children, particularly when I see scrumptious little girls. I’m horribly biased: I’d really only want a girl, though I do understand that other women with the same desire have gotten over the disappointment of having a boy (and there have certainly been many little boys who I myself have loved). Or, when I see A. interacting with children—how he talks normally to them, like the little people they are. Or, babies who smile at him desperately trying to get his attention. A. thinks this is because they look at his face and think, ‘Look at that baby... he’s huge!’
There’s also Christmastime, which, thanks in part to Dickens, makes me feel as though only two of us at the table is not enough—that it’s somehow Scroogely. In fact, all the holidays can bring these feelings of lack up—Easter when it's weird to hide chocolate Easter eggs for yourself, Halloween when there's no candy to steal from your child's trick or treating pillowcase.
And yet, that’s the nature of choices: there’s always the path not taken. And on the path that we do choose, we may find ourselves at the table with our lover, asking a backpack named Udu to pass Uncle Jilly the salt.